Shavuos: We are one nation

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Dear Rabbi Fried,

In a recording I heard about the holiday of Shavuos, the rabbi spoke about the Jews receiving the Torah with one heart and one mind, punctuating the togetherness of the Jews at Mount Sinai. I never heard that before and it was a nice idea, but I have trouble understanding what that does for us today when the Jews are so divided. What’s the point in talking about something nice that happened once upon a time if things are so different now?

Mark T.

Dear Mark,

The teaching you are referring to is the verse describing the Jews’ encampment at Mount Sinai, where it says, “and Israel encamped adjacent to the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). In Hebrew a verb changes from singular to plural if it referring to an action by more than one person. In that verse the Torah uses the word, “vayichan,” which literally means “he encamped,” the singular, rather than the proper tense for a group, “vayachanu,” the plural. Rashi, the classical commentary to that verse, explains what you said: that the Torah is hinting, by the use of that term for encampment, that at that moment the Jews reached a sublime level of togetherness and unity of purpose, that they became like one beating heart and one singular mind, to receive the Torah.

That explains how later, in verse 8, when Moses asks the Jews if they wish to accept G-d’s Torah, “The entire nation all answered together and proclaimed, ‘All that G-d has spoken we will fulfill.’” They were together on this occasion like no other time.

To your point, however, in the same explanation of Rashi,only at this encampment were the Jews so together, but future encampments were with discord and fighting. You notice that the lack of togetherness we often see among ourselves is not a new occurrence; it goes all the way back to Torah times!

In answer to your important question, I believe that what the Jews achieved at Sinai was to plumb the depths of the Jewish soul. The giving of the Torah brought out the essence of who we are as a people. At the core, we are one. The Kabbalistic sources are replete with teachings of the oneness of the Jewish soul and the Torah, at their earliest source, even before the physical world was created. At that earliest point, the roots of all of the future Jewish souls melded into one root and joined with Torah as the revelation of G-d’s will in this world which He was creating. That explains why “friend” in Hebrew is “chaver,” from the root “chibur,” which means “connected.” We are not arbitrarily friends; rather, friendship among Jews stems from a deep and profound primordial connection.

Although subsequent encampments were with strife and discord, it was always “within family” and they always got back together again to that unity that was their essence, as revealed at Sinai.

To me this clearly emerges throughout our history with the deep sense of community which holds us together and has kept us strong throughout our years of living in the diaspora. My wife and I discussed this during the recent extended blackout period in Dallas, when we, together with hundreds of thousands of Dallasites, lost power for a number of days in the Dallas heat. Our small community was exemplary, with nearly all those who had power hosting families who did not. We immediately had a listing of those who have extra refrigerator and freezer space to transfer our food to where it would not be ruined. Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas put out a message to the wider community of financial and other services provided by them for anyone who lost their food, needed counseling, etc. One neighbor across the street sent out a message that breakfast is served, with muffins, waffles and coffee, to anyone without power; in fact, their table was decked out with those delicacies for anyone needing it!

This, I believe, is an ongoing, practical ramification of that unity at Sinai. One is what we are at the core. Often we see it; sometimes we don’t. But knowing that it’s our essence gives us something to strive for. Shavuos is a time to connect deeply to the Torah; it’s being “re-given” every year and is an opportunity to reconnect to the beauty of the Torah and to the beauty of every Jew.

Chag Samayach to you and all the readers!

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.

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